The Irish National Cyclocross Championships of 2016 were held in Tollymore Forest Park, Co Down. Seven members of the Orwell took part in the events organised by Dromara Cycling Club with three in the Senior Men, three in the Women's and one in the Masters 40. Breda Horan was top Orwell in the Women's Race and tells her story while new comer Eoin Ahern recounts the Senior Men's race.

Breda during the race with tape stuck in her cassette (photograph with thanks to Sean Rowe)

Breda Horan

Little did I think I would find myself on the startline of a National Championship race when I first got the notion of trying out cyclocross only a couple of months ago. But here I was on the Saturday in Tollymore Forest Park for a recce. At the startline I met David Maher or DM just as he had finished a couple of laps and he kept me company on my first lap, with plenty of advice on the best lines etc to take. Due to heavy rainfall in the days leading up to the race, the course was really starting to cut up. Having to alternate with the second bike, which Brianne very kindly lent to me, was looking like a very real possibility. It was going to be a very fast course with very few obstacles; just a tree trunk followed very quickly by the two planks only a few metres away. Only the very technically savvy CXers could manage to bunny hop their way through this. Then just before the finish we had a tough incline to make our way through. All I was praying for was a four lap course because this would be a real killer. On my second lap I caught up with Orla Hendron and a few more of the girls. Another lap was more than enough before we cleaned down the bikes with the new sprinkler.

The morning of the race I was so glad DM had brought his turbo with him as it meant I could keep the bikes clean and get a decent warm-up. Valdis Anderson arrived and immediately started helping us out with getting the extra bikes, sprinklers etc down to the pits.

I arrived at the startline just in time to hear the official calling out the gridding. Luckily I’d managed to find myself in the second row right behind Emily Birchall. It was so cold and windy waiting around that I actually couldn’t wait to get going. At the whistle I didn’t manage to clip in straight away so I was frantic to get myself back to a decent position in the bunch. After the first S-bend all was still looking ok until the next bend. I heard a scream and saw a rider down. I seemed to slide in the mud to find myself against the fencing with the handle bar stuck in the wire fencing. Once I was out I was chasing at the back of the field but stuck with it through the forest section and past the pit area. Picking off as many riders as I could over the next few bends was proving tricky as the grass on the slight inclines had barely any traction. Some riders chose to run this but I persisted and made it up. Following on from here the ground was much firmer so I did my best to make up for lost time. Seeing Beth McCluskey on the other side of the fence I did a quick count and found I was in ninth. I’d set an aim of finishing top eight so I was going to stick to that. Heading back past the pits for the second time I was cheered on by the guys.

The course led out onto an uphill road for about 300mts before switching back to a wooded section where the log and planks were positioned. Once I had remounted, it was straight into a headwind for about 200mts and then the awful uphill grass drag before the finish. On the second lap I overtook Michelle Geo but somewhere I managed to picked up course tape and changing gear was near impossible so I kept spinning and couldn’t get any real power down. Passing the pits I hadn’t realized the extent of the tape until it was too late and all I could hear was Valdis shouting to make sure I switched bikes the next time. Michelle made more ground in the last run before the finish and as I crossed the start/finish there was a sign saying three laps to go and I think I actually died a little inside wondering how could I maintain this. As I switched bikes in the pit she flew by on the gradual decent. She really seemed to just increase the distance between us and I was starting to suffer, a lot.

I could blame the effects of two headcolds on training in the three weeks prior but a lot of that probably comes down to racing experience too. As it stood I was still in eighth and by the time I was through the forest on the final lap and back on my more familiar bike I noticed Mary Dawson and Orla Hendron hot on my heels. I really had to pick up the pace if I was going to maintain my placing. Hearing the cheers and seeing the familiar faces of the Orwell supporters really gave me a boost. After jumping the hurdles for the fourth time I could hear the commentator congratulating the winner of the Men’s 50. This meant I was on the final stretch and we were done at four laps-relief! In the distance I could see Michelle cross the finish line and just made sure I was next. Orla was swiftly in after me, great for Orwell with two in the top ten.

Orla finishing the race (photograph with thanks to Sean Rowe)

First season over, I’m looking forward to it all again next year. As cold as it is heading out to race on Sundays in the winter and as tedious as it is cleaning the bikes and kit, I’ve found it a lot more fun than road racing.

Huge thanks to Brianne Mulvihill for the bike, and the guys; DM, Eric Downey and Valdis for pit duty, turbos and minding kit etc. I was just glad I could return the favour for their races.

Eoin Ahern

Sunday last saw some of the most dedicated lunatics in the country descend on Tollymore Forest in County Down for the 2016 National Cyclocross Championships. This was a big day for me: my first national championships, but more importantly, my first outing in an Orwell jersey since transferring from UCC! I was entered in the Senior men’s race, along with fellow Orwellians (is that the correct term?) Eric Downey and Ronan O’Flynn, another new recruit to the club. Luckily for us, the Senior men’s race didn’t start until 2pm, so I was able to get a decent nights sleep before hitting the motorway on Sunday morning! After my GPS took me down some dodgy B roads after Newry, I eventually arrived at the venue a little over an hour before the start of the main event.

As a new convert to the discipline, I had set myself some modest goals for the day: race hard, enjoy it, and try not to finish last. Not getting lapped by the leaders would also be a huge achievement, but I wasn’t holding out much hope given the caliber of riders in the mix. Actually, even just finishing the race would be nice. The mud got the better of my derailleur at the Kiltiernan Fixx race just before Christmas, leaving me seething on the sidelines after just one lap. Having driven all the way up North for this race, I honestly don’t think I’d have been able to cope with the disappointment of another retirement.

Some of the more committed Orwell riders had been up to check out the course the day before, passing on a few cheat notes to the rest of us via the Orwell CX WhatsApp group. However, as soon as I got out on the course I realised it was a lot less like the Grand National course than Dave Maher had suggested! The start line was on top of a hill, with the course dipping down into a fast, slightly off-camber first corner. It then continued down into a short but exciting wooded section, before emerging into another field with a couple of tough, slippery slopes in quick succession, followed by some energy-sapping muddy straights and tight hairpin bends. The last section of the lap was by far the toughest part. It began with a fairly steep climb up a gravelly road, and continued uphill all the way to the finish line. Once off the gravel road, you were back into the mud and confronted by a massive tree trunk across the trail, quickly followed by a couple of wooden hurdles. All that was left then was a tough uphill slog to the start/finish line.

After my recce lap, I knew that I would be at a big disadvantage by not having a second bike at the ready in the pit lane. Heavy rain overnight meant that the grass had become quite churned up after the earlier races, and my drivetrain was already getting clogged up after that first lap. So, I pulled out as much as I could and waited for the starter’s gun. Clearly, I did a pretty crap job of it, as I dropped the chain as soon as the gun went. That left me out on my own and chasing fiercely from the offset. There’s no better motivation than seeing someone just up the road ahead of you, so I pushed hard and was back on the tail end of the group by the time I got to the woods.

New club member Ronan during the race (photograph with thanks to Sean Rowe)

The first couple of laps were pure hell. The racing was intense, and I was killing myself to try and claw back a few positions. By about the 3rd lap, though, things had settled down and I was locked in battle with a group of three or four guys of similar ability. The lead would swap every few hundred meters, with the stronger guys [replace with athletes/riders] making time on the straights or hills and the more technically gifted making up for it on the corners. I guess I’d sit somewhere in the middle of those two extremes, being average at best in either regard. The most frustrating part of these battles was passing the pit lane. [Passing the pit lane was the most frustrating part of these battles. Overuse of “THE”] I’d be up on someone’s wheel approaching it, and then they’d dive down the pit along the far less muddy grass, easily saving enough time to swap bikes and still come out ahead of me. I was seriously tempted on a number of occasions to just nip in through the pit lane to avoid the mud, but thought it might be a bit too cheeky! As I’d predicted, by about lap 4 my bike had become completely clogged up with muddy grass. I struggled on until the big log where I had to hop off anyway and cleared out the gunk between the frame and rear wheel. This also gave me a bit of a breather before attacking the two wooden hurdles and the climb to the start line. I was really struggling with those hurdles by this stage. They were situated on a steep enough uphill section, just after the big road climb. It was difficult enough to just run up the hill, never mind lifting my feet and bike up the extra 12 inches to clear them! (Seems I wasn’t the only one who struggled with them, there’s a clip going around of the great Robin Seymour taking a spill while trying to bunny hop them!).

Eoin during the race (photograph with thanks to Greg Germer of Steen Wear)

Unfortunately, while I was unclogging my bike, three guys who I’d been battling with passed me by. I now had a real challenge on my hands to try and pull them back. I figured that my best tactic would be to work hard and get within striking distance of them before attacking on the back of the last lap. Coming around on my second last lap, I was offered a bike swap by Ronan, who unfortunately had to retire after getting two punctures. However, I was on a war path and had a couple of guys in my sights so I stubbornly pressed on. I caught the first guy coming up to the pits for the last time, and was buoyed on by encouragement from the Orwell pit crew to go on and get another scalp. I caught the next guy at the log as we both struggled to step over it. With the finish line and one more man in sight, I gave one last blast and sprinted up the final grassy hill. The guy in front was fading fast, but I left my final surge just that little bit too late and finished about a second behind him.

Overall, I was delighted with how the race had gone. I’d pushed myself right to the finish line, had a lot of fun and my bike was still fully functioning at the end of it all! Yes, I did get lapped by the top 8 riders, but at least I didn’t get lapped by Eric, who finished in a really impressive 12th position. Commiserations to Ronan, he seemed to be flying until he got those punctures. I came home 29th out of the 52 starters, a decent result given the really high standard of racing and my own lack of experience. Not too shabby, considering I’d never ridden a cyclocross bike until about 3 months ago! Fair play to all the Orwell supporters and pit crew who hung around in the freezing conditions to cheer us on, especially those who were already knackered from their exploits earlier in the day! Big thanks to Valdis for the lend of the jersey as well! Unfortunately this pretty much marks the end of this year’s ‘cross season, but I’m already looking forward to bigger and better things next Autumn.

2016 Irish National Cyclocross Championships

Women's results

1 Beth McCluskey
2 Maeve O'Grady
3 Maria Larkin
8 Breda Horan
9 Orla Hendron
17 Emma Convey

Men's results

1 Roger Aiken
2 David Montgomery
3 Glenn Kinning
12 Eric Downey
29 Eoin Ahern
Ronan O'Flynn (DNF)

David Maher during the Masters 40 race getting back his primary CX bike from Orwell teammates Eric Downey (who just handed clean bike) and Diarmuid Donnelly (in Hanley Hat taking away dirty bike). Photograph with thanks to (Adrian McLeavey of IrishCycleSport)

Men's Masters 40

1 Robin Seymour
2 Jason Henry
3 Brendan Doherty
28 David Maher